Music and the database problem

This morning I noticed again that Alex Ross, in a tactic I admire and may try to emulate, makes frequent short posts on his blog. One from July 29, which you can find here, points readers to a recent Atlantic article on classical music and iTunes. Relying on that article, Ross mentions that the metadata system for MP3s originally identified only artist, song name, and album title. This wasn’t news to me, and I seem to remember a New York Times article pointing out the problems this created. The tag system was later expanded and includes a field, as database people would call it, for the “composer” of a given song file. This is better, but fitting a piece of music into the defined fields of a database record can still be difficult. How do you identify the arranger of a piece, such as Ravel’s orchestrated version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? How do you note the author of the text for any of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs? What if you’re not satisfied to record Stephen Sondheim as the composer of “Send In the Clowns” and want to credit him as the lyricist as well? In a way, this situation reminds me of the common tendency to credit a film to its director and forget the role of the screenwriter(s). Ross takes a different tack and sees in this tag issue another sign of the plight of composers and songwriters.

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Visiting the neighbors: Dennis Overbye looks at the end of an era

A NASA space probe called New Horizons, launched more than nine years ago, is approaching Pluto. In a New York Times column yesterday, science writer Dennis Overbye looked back at exploratory missions to other planets, beginning with Venus in the early 60s, and made this remark: “the inventory of major planets — whether you count Pluto as one of those or not — is about to be done. None of us alive today will see a new planet up close for the first time again.”

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Nothing new under the sun: music subscription services go way back

In a recent post on her Spooky & the Metronome blog, musicologist Deirdre Loughridge takes a look at present-day music-streaming services such as Rdio, Spotify, and the recently launched Apple Music and compares them with a historical antecedent: subscription-based libraries of musical scores. Particularly striking are the criticisms, both historical and present-day, that she quotes. Can you guess whether “music snacking” is an old or a new complaint about those who go restlessly from one piece to the next, never dwelling for long on anything? See her post to find out.

Notes on a new book about digital music and piracy

The usual story about digital music goes something like this, depending on what you’ve read: once people figured out how to use computers to rip music from CDs and share it online, piracy became rampant, and the recording industry suffered setbacks from which it has never recovered. That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. According to a New York Times review from mid-June that I discovered late, a new book, called How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Digital Piracy, delves more deeply into the story. Garner says, “Stephen Witt’s nimble new book…is the richest explanation to date about how the arrival of the MP3 upended almost everything about how music is distributed, consumed and stored. It’s a story you may think you know, but Mr. Witt brings fresh reporting to bear, and complicates things in terrific ways.” To judge from the review, Witt intertwines three main stories in his book: a group of German audio engineers who developed the MP3 format, a manager at an American CD factory who stole nearly 2,000 albums before their release and put them online, and the head of Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011, who, as Garner puts it, “comes to personify nearly every bad decision the major music labels made.”

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